Liturgy, Derek Webb, Self-Compassion and Liberation

Remember that time I designed a chapel service around Derek Webb songs? I’ll set the scene for you. It was Holy Week 2010. I was about to turn 30. I was the registrar at a small seminary that had been transitioning toward a merger with its neighboring Christian university, and I had spent several months preparing to be laid off with the majority of the other staff come the end of the semester. What I thought was going to be a long-term professional home when I was hired two years prior turned out to be an extremely painful and tumultuous time. With two months left on the clock and no prospects on the horizon, I found myself planning one of the weekly chapel services for the seminary community.

I had been wrestling for some time with the disillusionment of experiencing a larger than tolerable gap between who my faith community said we were and how we seemed to be shaping our lives. There is always a gap between our identity claims and our reality. To some degree our theology is aspirational, and our lives hold the tension and contradictions of our limited awareness, capacity and/or willingness to live out what we say we believe. I had some crushing experiences just prior to this season that, combined with my experience during this season, led me to question the claims we made about ourselves as radical Jesus followers (Anabaptists).

If we were so radical, if we really followed the teachings of Jesus, if we really believed what we preached and taught about peace, justice, community, etc., then how in the world could I make sense of the troubling things I witnessed and experienced? Could I chalk it up to “nobody’s perfect” or “every community has its flaws”? I tried. I certainly was pressured to believe that what I said I saw was not accurate or fair. I was too negative, too upset, unrealistic about the ways things work. I spent a long time being sent the message that my perception was wrong, or worse, that I was wrong for questioning or challenging those in positions of leadership and authority.

These days when I need to tap into energy that fuels my resolve to trust my intuition and use my voice, I turn to music by artists like P!nk. Back then, I was still mostly listening to Christian music. Yet, because I no longer resonated with much of the Christian music I listened to throughout my 20s, the few artists or albums I still felt connected with my journey, I’d play on repeat. Derek Webb was one of those artists. I’m pretty sure there were weeks, possibly months, when I’d listen to nothing but his solo albums. Any given week I might play I See Things Upside Down, Mockingbird, The Ringing Bell or Stockholm Syndrome a hundred times. In a journal entry during that time I wrote, “Derek Webb voices the prophetic burning inside of me.” Since he launched his solo career, he had been saying things that were rocking the boat, pushing the envelop, ruffling feathers. Through his music I found a kindred spirit for my journey that made me just a little braver, and helped me push back against messages that told me to calm down, shut up, leave it alone or fall in line. His music became part of the soundtrack of my life. So, as I sat down to design the chapel service for Holy Week, I read through the biblical texts, mulled over the theme of “faithfulness,” tried to sort through my experience of the last few years, and listened to Derek Webb. It didn’t take me long to decide to design the whole service around some of the songs that particularly spoke to me at that time.

I enlisted the help of some friends who were attending the seminary then. They often led worship and graciously agreed to learn three of Derek’s songs and serve as my chapel band. I knew this service, especially because of the music, would break from convention, but they weren’t the sort to turn down the opportunity to raise an eyebrow or two. During a difficult and dark time, creating and leading this service made room for some playfulness, and maybe a little rebelliousness. If I wanted things to be different, I’d have to explore and practice different things.

So, looking back, I could be a bit patronizing to my 30 year old self. What seemed boundary pushing and status quo challenging then seems like the smallest of baby steps now. I mean, a year from that time I presented a worship at the Exodus International annual conference advocating for celibacy as the only faithful response to same-sex attractions – a trip only made possible by the financial gifts of several people in my faith community. To try and preserve some measure of acceptance within that community, I was still desperately trying to hold on to a worldview and theology I could see was crumbling all around me. On the one hand, I was pushing and challenging and essentially saying, “This doesn’t work! Can’t you see the failure of our theology to produce the reality we claim it can and should produce? Something needs to change!” On the other hand, I was silencing and denying pieces of myself to try and maintain a seat at that table. I was afraid I wouldn’t survive losing my place there. At the same time, however, I was becoming more and more aware that I was not surviving keeping my place there.

Part of my journey of healing from the spiritual trauma I’ve experienced is to practice compassion for my younger selves. The 15 year old me that evangelized my friends at school, trying to save them from the hell they deserved by virtue of being a horrible sinner with whom a holy God could not stand to be in relationship. The 22 year old who packed up her bags after graduating college to move across the country and join Exodus’ staff, promoting “freedom from homosexuality” which heaped shame and self-hatred onto so many. And yes, the 30 year old who was beginning to wake up to the dynamics of certain injustices, but who for many reasons – fear being one – couldn’t yet choose liberation. As I heard when I recently listened to a podcast episode featuring Jamie Lee Finch, rejecting or abandoning our younger selves perpetuates an unhealthy relationship with ourself. “Compassion in our own direction is a vital part of moving from a place of disembodiment and trauma and moving into an embodied, connected, healed relationship with self.” Rather than cutting myself off from my younger selves, I’m learning to integrate all of myself and my story in order to take my whole self by the hand into the future. Looking back at this chapel service and sharing the story of it with you is one way of honoring the ways I was trying to create a new reality with the resources available to me.

Practicing compassion toward myself helps liberate me from shame and empowers me to heal and grow. Though I wish my younger self had found freedom much earlier, I also recognize that liberation is a lifelong journey. The freedom I experience today is incomplete: I am still stuck in systems that oppress me and others, some of which I have not yet become aware; however, I am committed to growing as I learn. Having compassion for my 30 year old self today will be good practice for having compassion for my 41 year old self 10 years from now. That compassion will move me toward greater faithfulness in the way of Jesus, and that has always been my desire.

Photo: One of my favorite experiences seeing Derek perform was at a house show in Modesto, CA in 2018. We did not know anyone there, but since it was within driving distance from where we were living at the time, we made the trip. After we moved back to TN, Kim and I also enjoyed meeting up with him in Nashville for drinks in early 2020. I do still listen to his music (even older stuff) for energy and inspiration. Check out his current work and projects.


Faithfulness: A Holy Week Liturgy

Introduction

Three days ago we shouted “Hosanna!” as we welcomed Jesus into the city. Tomorrow we’ll gather around the table and listen to Jesus re-tell the Passover story, introducing himself into the narrative in ways we won’t quite understand. Feet washed and mouths fed, we’ll wonder, “Which one was he talking about when he said ‘One of you will betray me’?” Oh we’ll all adamantly promise allegiance, but it won’t be long until we’re all falling asleep, handing him over, running away, and denying we know him. Friday is just around the corner when we’ll be shouting a different word, “Crucify!” Saturday we will wrestle within ourselves: Has God’s plan failed? Was this not the Messiah? What hope is there now? And then the sun will rise, a new day will dawn, light will break into the darkness and we’ll step out from our long fast in the wilderness where we have been tried and tested. We will be confronted with the words, “Do not be afraid… He is not here… He has risen.”

We are in the last day of Lent where wilderness stories converge: Israel’s wandering, Jesus’ temptation, our own discipleship journeys. We are also in Holy Week where we walk through the story of Jesus’ last days, from the triumphal entry into Jerusalem to burial in a borrowed tomb. Sunday is Easter. We know it is coming. We know what happens next in the story. Yet, we also find ourselves in the story. We are the people being led out of bondage by the presence of God through the heat of the desert toward promised peace. We are together the body of Christ walking the dusty roads Jesus walked and pursuing the mission Jesus passed on. In this already-but-not-yet narrative, we are invited into the faithfulness Jesus demonstrates.

Reader’s Theater, Matthew 4:1-11

R1: Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil. After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. The tempter came to him and said,

R2: “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.”

R1: Jesus answered,

R3: “It is written: ‘Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.'”

R1: Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple.

R2: “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down. For it is written: ‘He will command his angels concerning you, and they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.'”

R1: Jesus answered him,

R3: “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'”

R1: Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor.

R2: “All this I will give you, if you will bow down and worship me.”

R1: Jesus said to him,

R3: “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.'”

R1: Then the devil left him, and angels came and attended him.

A Love That’s Stronger Than Our Fear (listen here)

What would you do
If someone put a gun to your head
And asked you to tell them a lie
What would you say
If you were pushed that way
To betray yourself to keep yourself alive
Is life worth so much

There's got to be a love that's stronger than our fear
Of everything being out of control
Everything being out of control

What would you do
If someone would tell you the truth
But only if you torture them half to death
Tell me since when do the means justify the ends
And you build the kingdom using the devil's tools
Can time be so short

There's got to be a love that's stronger than our fear
Of everything being out of control
Everything being out of control

There is a day that's been inaugurated but has not yet come
That we can proclaim by showing that there's a better way

Collective Reading, Psalm 119:130-135

The unfolding of your word gives light; it imparts understanding to the simple. With open mouth I pant, because I long for your commandments. Turn to me and be gracious to me, as is your custom towards those who love your name. Keep my steps steady according to your promise, and never let iniquity have dominion over me. Redeem me from human oppression, that I may keep your precepts. Make your face shine upon your servant, and teach me your statutes.

Reader’s Theater, Jesus calls us*

Rich Young Ruler (listen here)

Poverty is so hard to see
When it's only on your TV
Or 20 miles across town
Where we're all living so good
We moved out of Jesus' neighborhood
Where he's hungry and not feeling so good
From going through our trash

He says "More than just your cash and coin
I want your time, I want your voice
I want the things you just can't give me"

So what must we do
Here in the West we want to follow you
We speak the language and we keep all the rules
Even a few that we made up

Come on and follow me
Sell your house, sell your SUV
Sell your stock, sell your security
Give it to the poor

What is this, hey what's the deal
I don't sleep around and I don't steal

I want the things you just can't give me
I want the things you just can't give me
'Cause what you do to the least of these
My brothers you have done it to me
'Cause I want the things you just can't give me
I want the things you just can't give me

Collective Reading, Psalm 51:6-12

You desire truth in the inward being; therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart. Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have crushed rejoice. Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities.

Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me. Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your holy spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit.

Reader’s Theater, In the wilderness*

Ballad in Plain Red (listen here)

I'm robbing Peter, I'm paying Paul
I'm changing my name back to Saul
I got to them and you know I'll get to you
I'm turning shepherds into sheep
And leaders into celebrities
It's holy sabotage, just look around you
'Cause everything's for sale in the 21st century
The check is in the mail from the 21st century

Don't want the song I want a jingle
I love you Lord but don't hear a single
And the truth is nearly impossible to rhyme
But I know the songs with all the hooks
And I know some lies that will sell some books
So grab 'em fast, I'm running outta time

Just keep selling truth in candy bars
On billboards and backs of cars
Truth without context, my favorite of all my crimes
'Cause everything's for sale in the 21st century
The check is in the mail from the 21st century

What works versus what's right
What's the difference tonight?
Take out the sign, forget the meal
We've got a gym and a Ferris wheel
I swear it's just like the country club down the block
'Cause you can make your life look good
And you can do what Jesus would
But you'd be surprised what you can do with a hard heart

'Cause everything's for sale in the 21st century
The check is in the mail from the 21st century
I think you've got trouble in the 21st century
So welcome to the struggle, it's the 21st century
I never thought I'd make it to the 21st century
Lord, I love the 21st century

I write these words from the grave
'Cause it's the only place that I'm safe
Only the dead are permitted to speak the truth

Collective Reading, Psalm 73

Truly God is good to the upright, to those who are pure in heart. But as for me, my feet had almost stumbled; my steps had nearly slipped… [I thought,] All in vain I have kept my heart clean and washed my hands in innocence…

If I had said, “I will talk on in this way,” I would have been untrue to the circle of your children. But when I thought how to understand this, it seemed to me a wearisome task, until I went into the sanctuary of God…

When my soul was embittered, when I was pricked in heart, I was stupid and ignorant; I was like a brute beast towards you. Nevertheless I am continually with you; you hold my right hand. You guide me with your counsel, and afterwards you will receive me with honor. Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire other than you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.

Affirmation*

Closing Prayer: A Love That’s Stronger Than Our Fear

There's got to be a love that's stronger than our fear
Of everything being out of control
Everything being out of control
There's a day that's been inaugurated but has not yet come
That we can proclaim by showing that there's a better way

* I couldn’t find the text/content for these sections.

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